Friday, March 11, 2011


The Animal Crossing Trap

To hear some people talk about it, Animal Crossing sounds like a work of art. I wish I could see the same game they do when I play it. I enjoy the game well enough -- I've been playing pretty consistently lately -- but I've never had a spark of insight into that whole "this changes the face of games as we know them" mentality that some people have.

The main idea -- a roleplaying game that takes place in a fairly pedestrian setting -- was relatively unexplored, but not really new; when the game first came out in the West, there were lots of comparisons to Harvest Moon, which started on the SNES and made some major cult inroads on the N64. The ideas are pretty similar -- harvest things, sell them, use the money to improve your life. Animal Crossing adds a real-time element, the benefits of which are arguable. Nintendo introduced Animal Crossing as a "communication game", playing up the postal system that allows you to exchange mail with the NPCs, but the NPCs share only six personality templates, and there's no AI whatsoever for engaging them in conversation.

The biggest difference that sets Animal Crossing apart is that your character has no needs. You don't need to eat, you don't need to collect all the bugs, you don't need to make nice with your neighbors, you don't have to plant gardens or pull weeds, you don't have to participate in the fetch quests that come up -- you're completely free to do anything or nothing. The sky's the limit, the world's your oyster, and a third cliched idiom.

Except for the small matter of your mortgage.

Internet gaming humorists were quick to latch on to the fact that Tom Nook is running a racket. It's a classic indentured servitude setup. When you start the game, he sets you up in a house you can't afford, so you begin with a debt. You run errands and do things around town to collect THINGS, which you bring to Tom Nook for money, and then you give the money back to Tom Nook. No sooner do you pay off one debt than you're presented with a steeper one. And most of the goods in town have to be bought through the company store -- if you want to mail a letter or plant a tree or paper your walls, you've gotta go through Nook. He's got you by the balls.

Except that he doesn't.

Animal Crossing is about living in a world with no needs. But when people sit down to play a video game, they sort of instinctively try to figure out the goal, the objective -- how do I win? Paying off your mortgage is the closest the game comes to giving you an officially sanctioned "goal" to work toward, so that's what we do. Our actions in the game become a means toward that end -- we get the tools because they help us get things to sell, we help our neighbors so we get things to sell, we spend half an hour walking up and down the shore looking for shadows in the water that we can catch in order to sell. We spend days, weeks, months chipping away at that number. The game becomes a daily grind for bells, and then we burn out on it.

Why? Why do we do it?

The game suggests that the mortgage should be paid, but it never requires it. There are no penalties for ignoring our debt and few rewards for paying it off. So why do we enslave ourselves to this activity? Is it that the gamer inside us wants to "finish" the game? Are we carrying over the pressure we feel in real life to get our bills paid?

I've been playing Animal Crossing: Wild World on and off since it first came out. I made most of my money through fishing -- I would play for half an hour or an hour daily, walking up and down the river and shore until I'd met whatever daily quota I'd set for myself. Last year, I managed to finish what I had believed at the time to be the last mortgage. In the days leading up to the event, I was elated. Finally! I thought, I would be rid of this annoyance. I'd never have to fish again, and I could do whatever I wanted -- talk to people, make donations to Boondox, maybe work out a tasteful layout for my house.

Finally, the day of my final payment came. I stepped into Nookington's with unwarranted satisfaction -- Nook informed me that he could make one final expansion on my house. I declined, but he wouldn't hear it. I shut down with a heavy heart, dreading what I would find the next day.

Another empty room had opened up in my house. I went to see Nook, bracing myself for a huge bill. The last payment was well over 800,000 bells; surely this last one would be a doozy. Imagine my delighted surprise, then, when I found out that the final bill was just over 9,000 bells. I could finish that in ten minutes! My heart soared. Finally, finally this rotten raccoon was being nice to me. Surely this was the reward for getting this far.

And then he caught himself and apologized for misplacing a decimal. The real bill was over 900,000 bells.

I want to know who thought that would be funny and put their head on a pike. That is a sick joke.

I logged out in disgust, and I stopped playing for quite some time afterward. I thought maybe I'd never play it again.

That was around the time I started going to Gay Gamer, a website that does what it says on the tin. One of their features is Wootini's Weekly Animal Crossing Diary, which is also what it says on the tin. Wootini mentioned in one diary that he had managed to grow pink roses, and for some reason, this stuck with me. I'd heard of the flower cross-breeding mechanic, but I'd never experimented with it myself.


I bought myself some flowers and I played for a few weeks that way. Every morning, first thing when I woke up, I would take my DS from my nightstand, start up Animal Crossing, and water my flowers. Then I went around to say hi to all of the neighbors. Then I saved and quit. I was on strike -- all of my tools were discarded on the floor of my main room except my watering can. For a long time, that was all I did. The flowers didn't reproduce nearly as quickly as I had expected. But with some dedication, I did finally get my own pink roses.

After some time, I got to the point where I was sad to see my daily session coming to an end so soon. I wanted to play more. And I noticed all of the fruit on the trees. I rarely gather the fruit when I play Animal Crossing, mostly because I got used to avoiding it when I played the Gamecube version with my whole family -- I left it for the others because it was their preferred cash flow. But this was my personal game. And I had the time.


I started selling fruit to Tom Nook. The money was better than I remembered it being -- I made at least as many bells per unit time as I did fishing, probably more, and I didn't have to waste as much time reeling in garbage and taking it to the recycling bin. And I didn't burn out on it for two reasons. One is because I couldn't do it every day. The other is that I would only do it if I felt like it.

And as long as I was out and about and hunting and everything, well, it couldn't hurt to bring the shovel along just in case I found a fossil, right?

By the end of the summer, my home was paid off.

But even more importantly, my house was starting to fill up with character portraits.

See, I never paid much attention to my neighbors before last year. Sure, I'd say hi if I passed by someone, but mostly I stuck to my work. There were fish and bugs to catch, after all. Who has time to run errands and have people over and make friends? But now that I sought everyone out every day and I did all of their cute little meet-ups and everything, they were starting to repay my friendship. I started taking a shine to folks I'd never cared much about before, and I was much more interested when they moved in and out. I was starting to find a new way to relate to this game. And that's the way I've continued to play it.

Animal Crossing is a lot like life. You have long-term goals and daily responsibilities. And if that's all you do with your life -- fulfill your obligations and then go back to bed -- your life isn't going to be very fulfilling. Sometimes you have to do something just because you want to do it, whether it's cross-breeding flowers or cooking yourself an interesting meal.

Even with the main goal complete, I'm still adjusting to the idea of relating to Animal Crossing, not as a game where the world needs saving, but as a world where I can do as I like, free of responsibility, and watch it grow and change. Where it's okay if, ultimately, I ended up neglecting my rose garden and it vanished. As long as I enjoyed the time I spent with it, it's worthwhile.

One day, I may just find that game everybody keeps talking about.


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